I have vivid memories of watching old episodes of both the NBC and CBS versions of David Letterman’s late night talk show and always getting a kick out a repeating bit he did called “Dave’s Record Collection.” It turns out that a great number of these weird vinyl albums came out of the personal collection of staff writer Steve Young, who, at the time Letterman went off the air, was the longest-serving writer on the show. While scouring used record stores for decades for the segment, Young stumbled upon albums that appeared to be cast recordings for unknown musicals, which is probably as good a description of what they are as you’re going to get.
In fact, they were the soundtracks for corporate-sponsored, full-bore stage musicals built around a single company (or industry) and performed throughout the 1960s and ’70s at sales meetings and other corporate events, never to be heard of again. The records were given out as tokens of the shows, only to employees, often with an “Internal Use Only” label slapped across the front. Corporations like General Electric, Ford, DuPont, Xerox, John Deere and pretty much every other major and many minor company produced expensive, lavish shows, hiring an army of actors, dancers and musicians at a time when such old-fashioned musicals were still quite popular.
As Young became more devoted to building a collection of such novelty records, he discovered that certain songwriters/composers either went on to actual Broadway work or excelled at the corporate level. Director Dava Whisenant’s charming and amusing Bathtubs Over Broadway follows Young’s years-long experience learning more about the history of these musicals and tracking down many of the performers and songwriters who made some of the best-known productions (in certain circles).
Considered one of the kings of collecting these types of records, Young is something of a legend in the collectable music markets. He still gets a charge when he finds something he’s never seen, which is rare since most record stores he goes into have no idea that these albums even exist. The film also brings to light some extremely rare archival footage of some of the musicals, some of which included the likes of Chita Rivera, Martin Short, and Florence Henderson in their cast. But when he connects with one of the great composers (living outside of Chicago, no less) and the pair begin writing music together, Young gets genuinely excited and emotional about his hobby. It is particularly funny since he’s never really had a hobby ever in his life before this, amusing and confounding his family to no end.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when companies had enough disposable income to spend more money on these shows (that would only be performed a couple of times at most) than most Broadway shows cost for hundreds of performances. Young’s enthusiasm for this music is genuinely infectious, and we find ourselves recognizing songs by the end of the film and getting thrilled about his passion, if only for a few minutes. Even if you feel like nothing about the subject matter of Bathtubs Over Broadway would interest you, I think you might be surprised how much watching another person get so excited about something gets under your skin in such a revitalizing manner.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
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